How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?

A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’

There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.

How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?

It’s a strange choice, but honestly it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the lefty teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.

I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from a speakeasy in the back of my mind.

Freelancing is the highest form of employment

For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had soul and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.

Gentlemen prefer banjos
Gentlemen prefer banjos

That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.

Of course I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it

Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score, or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.

I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn

I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.

Individualism can coexist with collectivism

Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these tings is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.

The feature that makes early New-Orlenian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos, like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.

The phenomenon of a band leader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:

  •  needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
  • the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
  • someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober

None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).

Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.

That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):

“True voice” blogging

So, I recently found a great website. I think that’s a rare event. More than half my time online is spent sifting irrelevant information and wincing at bad copy. I don’t say that to set myself up as a discerning arbiter of good taste – I do as much wincing when reading back over this blog as anywhere else.

HighExistence is on a mission to:

  • Provide a medium for freethinking individuals to connect & discuss
  • Compel you to follow your bliss & make a life, not a career
  • Explore all aspects of the human condition
  • Question anything & everything that is considered ‘normal’
  • Promote the general spread of happiness and love

That sounds like an invitation for every crackpot theorist to dive in and fill our screens with the kind of misspelled and vacuous user-generated content that we spend our lives clicking away from. But, like Reddit, HE has an upvoting system for posted items, and it works. Plus, it looks like a bit of vetting goes on before you become a contributor (known as a HEthen).

The platform seems to have become a good place for reading about folks who are taking an experimental approach to life, with themselves as the lab-rats. That’s the kind of stuff I can’t stay away from because, just like everyone else adventuring on the seas of post post-modernity, I’m always obsessing over the grand question of ‘how to live’.

Anyway, there was an article there titled “The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fu@!<“. I thought, “I’m going to read this but I’ll not be sharing it with my network because it has swears in it.” In one sense the article is a shameless tid-bit of click-bait, but I found, for once, I didn’t click away with a sense of “there’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back”.

It wasn’t the content (generic self-help chat you’ve probably heard before) that kept me reading , it was the style.

I’ve seen stuff a bit like it before. You might describe it as “true voice”, a little bit “stream of consciousness”. On the surface that’s exactly the type of rubbish I want to sift out. I get hired to straighten out people’s words, and I sometimes feel I’m in a lonely battle to get the world to, you know … use sentences.

However, I have to admit to noticing that the stuff that gets upvoted and read is seldom written in proper sentences and often commits grammar crimes.
Lomogram_2013-12-17_11-19-14-PM
I’ve seen it in countless non-fiction bestsellers on Kindle too. It’s a conversational, ‘true voice’ chat style that could easily have been written in an afternoon by somebody using voice recognition software as they drove in their car, or lounged in the bath.

There are still plenty of inane anecdotes and rambling passages of thought out there. I mean, when will cookery bloggers learn that I’m there for the recipe and I’m skipping the six paragraphs where you gush about when and where you first tasted this dish and how delicious it was, and where your quest for the perfect ingredients took you next?

I’m not talking about that. But there really is a place for the uber-conversational style, when a writer really has something to say. In fact, it’s more engaging.

I’ve been on a bit of a journey in this blog’s five-year lifespan. The way I read and write now has changed, but I still cling to a more ‘literary’ feel on here.

I’ve blogged far less in the last couple of years. I think this is because:

  • having a sense of the blog as a ‘shop window’ has limited what I dare to put in it
  • writing it has started to feel too much like work
  • I’ve been very busy
  • it feels like I’m in a rut with my writing style here and I’m bored with my own voice
  • I’m overwhelmed with ideas for posts because I have too many interests
  • some of my energy is going into writing a book that is becoming a receptacle for a lot of what I’d probably be blogging about

So (and it’s okay to start a sentence with ‘so’) I’m hoping to shift things a bit and make posting more fun for me. Maybe this is a place where I can be a bit freer from the restraints of ‘professional’ writing.

Taking a leaf out of the ‘true-voice blogger’ book feels worth a try.

It’s time to break a few personal rules like this post does. Not only have I abandoned proper sentences but I’ve also posted one of those cringing self-conscious blog posts that ends up talking about the blog and what I’m going to write, instead of actually writing it.

Time to sign off for now.

Ten Mandalas

I started playing around with mandalas last August, using them to bring focus and form to my life after a fairly chaotic summer of dropped habits and too many new things to process.

They also gave me the opportunity to try different techniques like drawing, painting, photography and photoshop.

I have ten now, and I’m thinking of continuing the project in moments of leisure. Each of them is fairly personal, a visual prayer or meditation, or an attempt to create a sense of order from disparate ideas.

I’m cautious of sharing these with too much explanation. The whole point of them is to transcend words alone and I prefer to leave the looker to find their own thing to take away. I’ve just limited the words to a title and an epithet.

 

140905_Potential
Potential: life is finite, but the possibilities are infinite
140907_Voyage1
Voyage: be the wind in these sails …
140908_Resurrection
Resurrection: unless a grain of wheat dies and falls to the earth it remains just one grain
Commonplace
Commonplace: the laundry, the cooking, these are my sacraments
140606_Change
Change: for everything there is a season
140909_Epiphany
Epiphany: field and fountain, moor and mountain
140912_Fruitfulness
Fruitful: my hedgerows of plenty must always be free
140910_Industry
Industry: work is doing real stuff
150210_Elemental
Elemental: Solvite Corpora Et Coagulate Spiritus
140911_Dwelling
Dwelling: inhabit, reside, abide, nest, occupy, rest, roost, settle, sojourn

 

A Post for the International Day of Happiness

I’m 15 years old, a schoolboy, and I’m walking onto a patch of light cast in a school courtyard by a street lamp.

The tarmac is black, the light is yellow and I’m seeing both colours simultaneously from the same surface. I register the matter of one and the energy of the other with no sense of duality. Perhaps that is what cuts me free for this moment in time. Because suddenly I have a taste of something for which there is no name: ‘contentment’, ‘awareness’, ‘union’ or ‘bliss’ could be used clumsily.

Maybe it’s just that I actually feel ‘happy’, and this is the new definition for that word.

I imagine that a bit of dust is caught in the groove of my life, causing the needle to skip back and replay those ten steps I take through the light, again and again, forever – it would be enough for me.

I am aware of other things that make the moment perfect. It is not anticipated or sought after, and it has not been added to by memory.

My shoes have rhythm – I wear black lace ups like Fred Astaire – and my limbs are supple and relaxed. This patch of light is triangulated upon three loci that are especially significant to my coagulating sense of identity: bordered on one side by the churchyard wall, a stone’s throw from the parish church, 50 paces from the school theatre and 30 paces from the English department. I belong here; this is my territory.

Place and time have come together. I am the lord of the night air and the emperor of this pool of light. I spin around on my heels, walk backwards for a few paces, rejoicing.

The dark receives me again and I walk on, down the hill towards the boarding house.

Copy of WP_20150207_10_05_17_ProMoments that are impossible to recreate, unasked-for, not divorced from the past or the future but somehow complete in the present, as if some prankster balanced a bucket of grace on the lintel of a doorway and I was the fool that got drenched   – I think this is how happiness is for us.

About twenty years later, I’m lying in bed.

I’m constructing the argument I should have made earlier in the day during a conversation. It feels water tight. I’ve started with a couple of ethical givens and I’m going through the logical steps to my conclusion.

But the steps are also taking me to the edge of sleep, and suddenly I’m there, toeing the border line. My internal dialogue stops but it’s as if I step onto the platonic form of all arguments in all times and places and continue. Vividly in my mind I see a ruler stretching over an abyss and a dividing compass pacing along it.

When the compass gets to the end of the ruler, I see something else that lasts for a couple of seconds. It’s like the dot of light that would shrink and disappear in the moments after turning off an old television set. But I see it with my whole being, as if my mind has become a single organ of sight.

In that moment, I KNOW all the answers to everything: all paradoxes and problems that have befuddled humans for millenia. I have the answer to the problem of evil, the resolution of determinism vs. free will, the goal of every koan, the last word on why we are here at all. I feel what it’s like to be omniscient for the tiniest sliver of a moment, and then it flits away into the abyss.

I pull myself back into wakefulness to see if I’ve been able to retain any of the knowledge, but the moment was too short for my memory to turn it into brain-code and store it. Nevertheless I feel a soaring sense of contentment. It’s enough for me to know that the answers DO exist and that they are real.

The afterglow of that revelation lasts to this day.

May this International Day of Happiness for you be booby trapped with unsolicited delight.

Reviewing a few recent reads

I’ve started 2015 trying to finish reading a few books that have been on my ‘current’ shelf for too long, and I’ve set myself an ambitious reading list for the year.  I’m also trying to revive the discipline of writing a brief personal response on finishing a book.

While I have still not decided what to say about Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (which it feels almost sacrilegious to comment on) and Giordano Bruno’s ‘De Umbris Idearum’ (which I probably need to re-read), or how to comment best on a couple of – excellent – books authored by friends of mine, I’ve found something to say about some other recent reads.

The Complete Illustrated Stories of the Brothers GrimmThe Complete Illustrated Stories of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the few things I can conclude from this book is that neither the brothers Grimm nor the good people who narrated these tales to them were sober at the time. That doesn’t negate the work as a pretty extraordinary record of the dark, moralistic, occasionally humorous but rarely original landscape of 19th century German folklore.

Grimm seems to be back in vogue at the moment, in Hollywood, in fresh anthologies of fan fiction, in a counter-movement to ‘disneyfication’. Many of these tales certainly beg to be retold and made relevant in our day. Some of them are downright funny and have great punchlines. A few of them provide novel variations on stories we think we know. Most of them simply recombine the same tropes like cards drawn at random from a deck of superstitions.

In the world of Grimm you must be kind and generous and it’s even more to your credit if you are poor; beautiful people are good and ugly people are evil; you should avoid forests and bodies water, especially if you are a child; you can generally trust elderly people; women are either barren or remarkably fecund; children should respect their parents and compete against their siblings for their affection; parents shouldn’t spoil their children; life is pretty cheap; cunning always prevails against brute force and being a smart arse is admirable. Given how much these values are at odds with those of the 21st century I’m at a loss to explain the revival of interest …

 

Descent of the DoveDescent of the Dove by Charles Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charles Williams’ take on Church History: I found it much harder to understand than his book “Witchcraft”, which feels rather like a companion to this work. Nevertheless, I glimpsed much through the shifting clouds of his prose, and what I saw, I liked. Williams does this in his fiction as in his non-fiction: he sees the whole of reality in a different way and hardly bothers to spell it out for his readers. You sort of go along for the ride and the stuff he says about the passing vistas makes you see them as he does for a few breathless moments that seem to invoke a Jungian sense of ‘oneness’.

On discovering huge gaps in my understanding of classical thought, literature and history, I have only been provoked to read more and explore further. Centrally, though, I’m broadly comforted by Williams’ essential recasting of the bloody, shameful and dark moments in Christian history. His vision enables him to discern God at work in diverse and contradictory movements, frequently pitted against each other. Central to this is his unique theological formulation of ‘co-inherence’ – that process by which humankind incubates the Kingdom of God.

There is a lot of assumed knowledge he expects in his readers, which makes some parts of the text almost inaccessible to those outside the orbit of his intellect (including me). However, a bit of background in Williams’ theology, namely the formulations of co-inherence and the ‘Way of Affirmation’ versus the ‘Negative Way’, will open up much of this to a new reader, as will a prior reading of Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’.

I will strive to be equal to a second reading of this book when I come to it, and in the meantime I have copied out a good few of Williams’ perfectly turned phrases to chew on and extended my reading list for the coming year.

 

Chaos: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Chaos: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before reading this book, all I knew about chaos theory came from reading Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels back in my teens. After reading it, I don’t feel as if I know a great deal more. Obviously chaos is hard for a non-mathematician to fathom, and this book needs a rudimentary grasp of a lot of related concepts which it only mentions.

It does a good job of surveying the history and development of chaos theory with specific reference to the important pieces of research and the people who published them. All the ways that chaos theory touches into economics, biology, physics, engineering and other fields is given a broad treatment.

As I tried to wrap my mind around the text, it would have been helpful to have some diagrams – it’s a ‘graphic’ guide after all. But the illustrations were abstract and pretty unhelpful. They consisted mostly of collage-style cartoons of people with romano cabbages instead of hair, interacting with scribbly representations of strange-attractor curves and a model chart of fish population growth. I can see how the gradual incorporation of different elements in the collages reflected the addition of new concepts as the book progressed, but they didn’t really shed new light on the topic. It feels like a missed opportunity to clarify things with good graphic material. ‘Strange attractors’ seem to be really important to the whole thing, but I felt that they were glossed in the early sections and still don’t quite get it.

However, I managed to grasp the stuff on fractals, time, turbulence, markets and there were a few moments when the penny dropped in spite of the brevity of the text and the obscurity of the illustrations. I have also found my awareness of chaos has expanded and I’m more likely to spot it at work and factor it into the way I see the world around me – this is a good thing. I have another book in the series – on fractals specifically – to read next, and I’m looking forward to it.

 

A Friend in Every City - One Global Family - A Networking Vision for the Twenty First CenturyA Friend in Every City – One Global Family – A Networking Vision for the Twenty First Century by Penny Power

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although it was published in 2006, and social and online business networking has moved on very rapidly since then, there are still many useful parts in this book. Plenty of it’s predictions have come true and the overall vision of a global family is still working itself out.

I read it partly as an interesting documentary on the state of social networks back in the days when they were less populated, and partly as a handy guide to the practicalities of networking. Advice on setting up profiles, branding, developing an open and generous attitude (rather than only selling) and the bits on team and personality profiling were all good to chew on.

Lots of case studies and stories keep the interest going, but it has dated quite a lot in the last 7 years.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Read my more in-depth review of Richard Crompton’s ‘Hells Gate’ over at Orion Fiction’s Murder Room blog.

 

A glyph for 2015

Over the last couple of years, my way of processing life and pondering the world around me has increasingly been mediated through symbols. Writing systems, pictograms, allegories and icons are the currency of my imagination. With symbols I can do more than words allow. I have a developed a personal pictography, a kind of shorthand, drawing from many sources and referenced to particular meanings.

I’m well past making new year’s resolutions but I’ve always taken time to focus on taking stock of the passing year and feeling out the themes of the coming year round this time. In prayer and contemplation for 2015, it seemed three things and a fourth were being emphasised.

Having worked out glyphs for these emphases, I noticed that each of them had a common element – a cross – enabling me to combine them into a single form.

So here is the glyph I mark upon the doorposts of 2015.

2015
2015

It’s component parts are thus:

Finishing
Finishing

Finishing

This is the symbol for Saturn. In esoteric systems, Saturn has a very complex variety of correspondences. But, to keep it simple Saturn was the Greek god of agriculture and the symbol contains two elements: a cross (or sword) and a sickle. It can be taken to represent the harvest: things must die and come to an end but in that moment seeds are gathered for sowing in the next cycle.

Of course, to be saturnine is to be gloomy, but, to borrow from the Christian imagery of the cross, the words of the Son of God are appropriate.

I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (John 12:24 HCSB)

I’ve noted that the last few years have been characterised by a lack of finishing. I enter 2015 with so many projects begun and not completed. An unfulfilled intention, a work half done, can become rotten. I need to put the sickle in and finish many things so that new life can come. 2015 is to be a year of finishing.

Truth
Truth

Truth

Encapsulated here in one of the many alchemical symbols for gold is something I need to bring back to the centre. Truth, like gold can be tested by fire, bears no combination with other elements and stays unchanged.

I’m a people pleaser. This means I all too easily try to give others the answer I think they want to hear. That’s not always realistic. I’ve a creeping habit of white lies: “Of course, it’s no problem.” “I’ll be there at six.” “It will be fine.” “I’ll be thinking of you.”

These are not loving, respectful interjections unless they are true. Even if it arises from the best will in the world, I need to curb my optimism at times and let my ‘yes’ actually mean ‘yes’.

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” (Leo Tolstoy)

Praxis
Praxis

Praxis

This is a symbol I’ve invented to use for the concept of praxis – an antidote to inwardness. It depicts a sword, internally rooted but driving outwards to act externally. For me, Praxis doesn’t oppose contemplation but means something like a ‘contemplation by doing’ and it’s closely allied to the philosopher’s ‘techne’ – practical craft.

I owe this new emphasis to the lessons I’ve been studying in alchemy over recent months. The alchemist performs processes – burning, boiling, distilling – all the while observing diligently the transformation of substances without missing the correspondences with his own soul-work.

I’ve written before in this blog on the experimental approach to life, and this seems to be back in focus for this year.

It’s surprising I never really took to science at school. I don’t think I ever made the connection between what we did in the classroom and the fact that my den in the garage hosted a fossil collection and pendulums that hung from the ceiling to study gravity and waves. I had exercise books full of notes and measurements of such things as the landing positions of sticks thrown at random. I tried to replicate the experiments of Mendel in my flower bed. I was just a little Issac Newton, but schooling cast me as an ‘arts person’.

I don’t think our education system encourages the formation of a renaissance mind, and more is the pity.

In 2015 the world and my self will be my laboratory. I want to do real stuff in the real world and watch it closely and learn all I can from it instead of from books.

And the fourth thing

Although not depicted, this underpins all of them. It’s ‘momentum‘.

I’m poor at keeping momentum. If things are going well, I cruise or put my attention elsewhere, so they grind to a halt. This goes for creative projects, relationships, work and home life. Things are not finished. Wishful thinking swallows up reality. Praxis collapses back into theoria.

It’s easier in the long run to keep the wheels turning with tactical doses of effort than to be repeatedly frustrated by inertia.